LARAMIE – The thoughts of finality began creeping into Wyoming safety Alijah Halliburton’s head Sunday morning. The plunge of relative uncertainty he took four years ago that had paid off so handsomely was finally nearing its end.
Halliburton is one of 15 seniors listed on UW’s roster. Before Friday night’s Bronze Boot matchup against archrival Colorado State, each will be introduced on the field, one by one, in front of the home crowd at War Memorial Stadium. Each will shake head coach Craig Bohl’s hand and be surrounded by family. Tears will likely flow, and emotions will be high.
The morning after losing a heartbreaking game at Utah State, Halliburton’s mind drifted to what Friday might look like.
“On Sunday, I woke up just thinking, like, ‘Damn, this is the last one,’” Halliburton said with a smile. “I’m not super emotional right now, but in the moment, I feel like it will be."
The true seniors on the 2019 Cowboys took a leap of faith when they walked onto campus as freshman. In 2015, Wyoming went 2-10; the 2019 redshirt seniors witnessed that disastrous year with their own eyes. The team was outscored by 15 points a game, and had losing streaks of six games and four games sandwiched around its two wins. Committing to a program coming off a historically bad season is not something everyone would be willing to do. Bohl, who was in his second year at the time, is the first to admit that.
“They came here when no one would give us a plugged nickel,” Bohl said. “We were in a stretch where I don’t even know if we had won a game.”
The members of the 2019 senior class, whether they’re in their fourth or fifth year, changed the course of Wyoming football. They entered unknown waters because they had faith in Bohl’s process and, perhaps more importantly, faith in the program.
Each senior or redshirt senior who weathered the storm is thankful he did so: UW is bowl eligible for the fourth straight season – the first time that has happened since 1996-99 – and has a chance to go 4-0 against Colorado State.
Their faith was rewarded and, in the process, they left an indelible mark on the program.
“Coach Bohl tells us all the time, ‘Those who stay will be champions,’ and the guys who stayed and bought into his motto and bought into his hard work atmosphere, we saw that,” redshirt senior receiver Austin Conway said. “We’ve won some games that people probably counted us out in, and we’ve won games we’re supposed to win.”
“I wanted to be a Cowboy”
Coming from Casper, redshirt senior linebacker Logan Wilson grew up somewhat of a UW fan, though he’ll admit he didn’t follow the Cowboys extremely closely growing up.
Wilson saw the trying 2-10 season firsthand during his redshirt season. Attitudes were bad, he said, and the culture was not conducive to winning.
If winning is contagious, then losing is a plague. The locker room needed an overhaul.
“There were a lot of selfish mentalities (that) didn’t want to work hard,” Wilson said. “At this point, we’ve kind of weeded those guys out, and they’re not here anymore. … Just to see the culture change, it’s pretty much like night and day.”
Redshirt senior tight end Josh Harshman, also of Casper, caught two passes in 2015, his true freshman season. Harshman and Wilson were key cogs on Natrona County’s undefeated 2014 4A state championship team. Going from that to the 2015 UW team was trying. The Pokes expect to win all of their games now. Back then? Each one was a gift.
“I remember some of the guys were just celebrating getting that first win,” Harshman said. “It’s just like a different type of mindset, I guess.”
When Bohl got to Wyoming after winning three FCS national championships at North Dakota State, he aimed to instill toughness. He needed players who fit that mold, even if they weren’t highly ranked recruits by most standards. Winning was to be the standard, rather than an aberration.
Fast forward to 2019, and, standing at 6-4 and in line for a bowl game, the Cowboys are far from satisfied. That mentality, even before it turned into wins, is what drew Conway to Laramie.
Conway, a Colorado native, was recruited by Colorado State. When he arrived at UW in 2015, the Rams were a consistent bowl team. Wyoming, meanwhile, hadn’t been to the postseason since 2011. Conway saw through the numbers, though, and bought into what Bohl was selling. First came the process, then came the wins. The details of the process itself, the mindset of becoming a winner, was something Conway could apply to the rest of his life.
“I had a vision of the kind of person that I’d be before I came here. That’s the reason why I came here,” Conway said. “I wanted to be a Cowboy and associate myself with the work ethic, the hard-working mentality, but just the character and how people care about each other and work for the growth of each other from that. That’s amazing. … It’s a life lesson.”
“It still holds a special place in my heart”
As a Southern California native, senior linebacker Cassh Maluia didn’t really understand the importance of the Border War. In fact, he admits he hadn’t even heard of Wyoming. The term “Bronze Boot” held no significance. It was the job of seniors to stress the importance of UW’s rivalry with CSU. Four years later, it is Maluia passing on knowledge as he prepares for his final game at War Memorial Stadium.
“Man, this is going way too fast for me,” Maluia said. “It’s a little bit of a bittersweet moment. I’m ready to go out there and give my all for these fans one last time. And I’m going to miss giving my all for these fans.”
Much like Halliburton, Maluia committed to Wyoming at a seemingly low point in the program’s history. Two wins were the fewest for Wyoming since 2002. But UW football is about a lot more than winning and losing. And, as Bohl predicted, success would follow if players stayed the course.
“They believed in where we were going,” Bohl said. “They’ve really been special.”
It’s hard for Conway to pick a favorite memory at War Memorial Stadium, though the first one that came to mind was last season’s comeback win against Air Force. Trailing 24-14 entering the fourth quarter, the Pokes scored 21 points in the final frame to take down the Falcons 35-27. The feeling in the locker room after that game was something Conway will never forget. Before Bohl could even finish talking, music was blaring and dancing was underway, Conway said.
For senior cornerback Tyler Hall, the moments he remembers most involve his freshman year in 2016: fellow senior Josiah Hall’s famed Safety Dance against Boise State and UW hosting the Mountain West title game, even though it lost to San Diego State.
“That’s something I will hold on to,” Hall said. “No matter the outcome, it still holds a special place in my heart.”
Every senior on Wyoming’s roster has a story to tell and memories to last a lifetime. When they take the field at War Memorial Stadium on Friday, a rush of emotions are bound to come over each player introduced to the fans.
“This is the only four-year university here, and to see how much the state is behind you is just such a great feeling,” Maluia said. “I’m getting goosebumps right now talking about this amazing fan base.”
Laramie means something different to each player. When it arrived on-campus, the senior class had its faith tested. Four (and for some, five) years later, that faith has been rewarded. Lessons learned on the field and off of it will be lessons applied to their lives, whether it involves football or not. Perseverance and hope are applicable anywhere.
The 2019 seniors set a standard of excellence that most outside of the Wyoming football program didn’t see coming. Inside the locker room, though? This was always the plan.
“This senior class is probably the last that’s truly been through it all. … We’re the last guys here who were during the really hard times,” Wilson said. “People have to realize that a program isn’t built overnight. It’s not built in a year. It takes a lot of time, and just to see where we’re at now is pretty cool.”
Valladay expected to play
Bohl said that sophomore running back Xazavian Valladay did not practice Tuesday due to a tweaked knee but was “scheduled to go” for Friday’s matchup against Colorado State.